Workshop of Donatello
The Nativity, mid-15th century
This tender relief is a characteristic and exceptionally well-preserved example of a type of sculptural devotional image that was extremely popular in quattrocento Florence. The relief was made to be seen from well below (di sotto in su) and slightly to the left, so that the spectator seems to be queuing up behind the Virgin and Joseph and following their gaze, to see the Christ-Child. The detailed polychromy and gilding endows it with an almost cinematic realism, that would have encouraged an emotional response by viewers who would have experienced it lit by flickering candles in a church interior.
The relief is closely related to a bas relief in terracotta, with inlays of wax medallions, of the Virgin adoring the Christ Child, known as the Piot Madonna, in the Louvre, by Donatello, the leading Italian sculptor of the early Renaissance. In the present relief the scene has been extended to include Joseph and animals and the composition has been fitted into an arched shape, that is better suited to a more complex scene.
Several versions of this extended relief are known, each of them with slight variations in design and finish, suggestive of specific commissions from a major workshop. These reliefs have been the subject of lively scholarly debates over their authorship. Bode was the first to attribute the composition to Donatello (loc. cit.), on the basis of the example in the Bardini Museum. In 1968 John Pope-Hennessy re-attributed the composition to Urbano da Cortona (loc. cit.), a follower of Donatello who collaborated in his Paduan workshop and from 1451 worked in Siena. This attribution was more cautiously upheld by Herzner in 1985 (loc. cit.), but in 1986 Alan Darr instead suggested the work was closer to Bartolomeo Bellano, a more accomplished sculptor and student of Donatello, and created in the 1660s at the time when Bellano and Donatello were working closely together on the San Lorenzo pulpits (loc. cit.).
More recently Avery has re-attributed the composition to Donatello. Avery argued (in Donatello Studien, 1989, p. 232):
‘Once upon a time it was held that anomalies in spatial relationships were uncharacteristic of Donatello, for he was so concerned with the correct rendering of perspective; however, it has long since been admitted that this is not universally true. A prime objection to his authorship of this composition is thus removed: in fact, like many of his devotional reliefs, this one is designed to be seen from about 45 degrees below, as though one were kneeling before it, and perhaps slightly to the left. Joseph then appears not like a dwarf, but to be peering intently toward the Christ Child, as he kneels behind a rocky ledge, to which he clings for support and for reassurance. The Virgin with hands joined in prayer is similar to several figures in other, simpler, panels with only the Child. Nuzzling close to her hands are the friendly ox and ass, in whose byre Jesus is propped up on straw in the right foreground.’
‘A pleasing touch is the way in which an end of the Virgin’s veil is caught up over one of the ox’s horns: the festive swag on its forehead clearly betrays Donatello’s source for this convincing rendering – a sacrificial bull from an ancient Roman relief. The bony structure of the muzzles of both beasts is thoroughly apprehended by the sculptor, in a way that recalls the Marzocco. The pairs of human and animal worshippers are aligned diagonally up the surface and also diagonally in the notional depths of the relief: this clear arrangement reserves a triangle at the right-hand front corner for the all-important infant, the focus of attention. We seem to be spectators from the nearer side of the crib and hence feel drawn into the drama and wonder of the moment. The weather-beaten face of Joseph – a carpenter and hence an artisan with whom Donatello could empathise – is typical of the sculptor’s portrait-like heads and may be paralleled with those of his stucco reliefs in the Old Sacristy. What has helped to obscure the brilliance and charm of this composition is the existence (also in the Bardini Museum) of an approximately mirror-image composition, which is indeed only an inferior derivative and completely lacks the narrative clarity and logic of its prototype.’
Furthermore, Avery has more recently suggested that there is something of Donatello’s own appearance in the character of Joseph ‘for it resembles the only painted image of him on a cassone-front, dressed up in a gentleman’s fine attire, perhaps at the expense of Cosimo the Elder de’Medici (as narrated by Vespasiano da Bisticci): the angle of both faces is conveniently similar and shows the same broad cheekbones, the same straight nose and the same trimming of the beard clear of the lower lip. The strong hands could be those of a sculptor just as well as those of the carpenter in the Christian story’ (Avery, private communication, 2022).
Upon examination of the present example, Avery has attributed it to Donatello and his workshop (expertise available on request), proposing that the relief was produced under his supervision. However, the prevalence of other examples and the lack of any contemporary documentation, makes an authoritative attribution to anything other than Donatello’s workshop difficult to make.